Imagine the gut-wrenching pain and unbridled sorrow you experience after yet another unarmed black boy is killed by a policeman. Imagine the conversation you must have with your young daughters in your efforts to keep them safe when they leave the protection of your home. You must also help your daughters carefully understand the nuance between their privilege and the vulnerability associate with their race. Every black household regardless of education, income or social status must have this conversation because every black American realizes that even a position on the Social Register does not protect one’s child on a dark evening facing a policeman with a predisposed notion about the worth of young black people.
You may be drawn to memories of your own unsettling encounter with a policeman returning to campus in the tony neighborhood that engulfs Occidental College or following a night in a Harvard Square pub. You know the lived experience of the enraged black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri in a way that only a black person in America can know race. You, like every black man, carry the shared pain of America’s tortured racial legacy having yourself written about it in a stirring memoir. You are, at once, a black man in these United States and the President of the United States.
You are the President of a nation of diverse peoples and cultures born of racial strife and conflict which lingers. You were elected on a platform of hope and change and the heady prospect of a post-racial society. Your very DNA represents a merging of black and white and your early personal narrative depicts the often messy circumstances of being black and white in a highly race-conscious society.
In 2007, Shelly Steele, published a book entitled, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win. At the time of its release it was viewed with some derision and dismissed as the predictable polemics of a noted, conservative black scholar. Folks focused on the sub-title and assumed Steele was scoffing at Obama’s chances of winning the election. For those black folks who actually read Steeles’ book nothing surprising was revealed. Every black person recognizes that in order to succeed in America, especially to the highest levels, a certain degree of assimilation and appeasement is required. In reality, that often means subduing a bit of one’s black self and muting any black rage. Black people unequivocally understand that they cannot expect to move successfully and seamlessly among the rich, white and powerful by making them confront the reality of racism and their role, however unintended, in perpetuating it.
Steele argued that if elected, Barack Obama would be the leader of all Americans and he would be inevitably and forever caught between mollifying a white majority and addressing the real and urgent needs of black Americans. The circumstance of race in America would not allow this black man to act upon the fullness of his authentic black self. He would be bound by the expectations that he respond dispassionately to all matters related to race.
In retrospect, Steele was correct and we are forced to consider the veracity of his premise. The most recent killing of an unarmed black boy and the outcry it has caused has placed an unusual burden on America’s first black president to say and do something. This latest shooting suggests a national crisis that brings into bold focus the fine line along the racial divide that Barack Obama is forced to walk. On this matter, for many black Americans, this black president has been conspicuously measured and timid in his response to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Many are left to imagine, what might impassioned remarks sound like and what impact might they have? What would be the consequences of words spoken from Barack Obama, a black parent? We will never know because as a bound man, Barack Obama’s blackness cannot define him. And, as such, America’s black citizens cannot expect any favored status, treatment or real sustained benefit from this black president. In a color-blind, race-neutral society, Barack Obama’s blackness should not define him and black Americans would not need any special advocacy because the playing field would be wonderfully leveled and opportunity and advancement would rest strictly on one’s ability and hard work. Difference would be viewed simply as different and a hierarchy of value and status would not be attached to one’s race. Regrettably, that America does not yet exist for all black Americans.
Barack Obama’s moment in the history of this nation cannot be overlooked or diminished. The psychological impact of his presidency on the collective self-esteem of African-Americans and the message of possibility it telegraphed to little black boys and girls was singularly the most powerful occurrence in modern African-American history.
There is the expectation, and it is a reasonable one, that President Obama speaks for all Americans, not solely for African-Americans. In the Michael Brown case particularly, with all the facts still unknown, it has been argued that it would have been premature at best and irresponsible at worst for a sitting President to resoundingly condemn a municipal police department. Nevertheless, Barack Obama, the black man, must recognize the disturbing pattern of policemen killing unarmed black males. To speak on this issue from the heart of a black man would elicit the strongest criticism from his critics and risk the alienation of the white majority. Not to speak on this issue from the heart of a black man disappoints African-Americans who feel collectively betrayed and voiceless. This is the unfortunate state of race in contemporary America.
I cannot imagine having to reconcile the inner tensions of being bound by the requirements of the American presidency and the often odious circumstances regularly visited upon too many black Americans simply because of the color of their skin. It is for that, and his incredible bravery that Barack Obama has my deepest admiration and my prayers.